I Regularly Exercise My Substitution Muscle

I’ve been thinking about the logic of substitution, and it’s not just about food. A well exercised substitution muscle greatly increases our odds of being, doing, and attaining what we want in life, because it allows us to navigate the obstacles. There is almost always a way to work around whatever has gone wrong.

I think the first step to working around whatever has gone wrong is to recognize the thing you were trying to do or obtain as a means to an end. Once you can do that, it’s easy to identify what it’s job is, and you can start looking for ways to do the same job.

For example, if you want to go to business school but haven’t gotten into the programs you applied to, it’s really time to sit down and think about business school as a means to an end rather than an end to itself. Why do you want to go to business school? What do you want to learn there? Who do you want to meet? What do you want to do after business school? Now that you’ve identified all the jobs that you wanted business school to accomplish, it’s time to find something (or more than one something) that gets the job(s) done. Want to learn about accounting and finance? Buy a few textbooks, arrange to audit a course for free, and e-mail good questions to people in the field who know their stuff. Want to establish a network? Contact the people you want to know, ask good questions, and get to know their story. Don’t forget to ask them if there’s someone else you can talk to. Want to start your own business? Go ahead! No degree required!

Suppose instead that you want to go to law school or med school, but it’s just not panning out. It might be harder to think of law or med school as one of several ways to an end, especially if the end you had in mind was becoming a doctor or a lawyer. At this point, it’s time to think about being a doctor or a lawyer as a means to an end. Why did you want to become a doctor or a lawyer? What aspects of your personality and your character did you want to develop and express? Was there a particular group of people, ecosystem, or cause you really wanted to help? Did you want to make a six-figure income after you completed your training? Do you enjoy diagnosis? Analysis? Argumentation? Write down all the things that being a doctor or a lawyer was going to allow you to do, be and have. Once you’ve got it all down, start thinking, and thinking hard.

You can definitely find a way to accomplish all the jobs that were going to be taken care of by becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but you’ll probably need to do more than one thing. If there’s a cause or group of people you really want to work with, you don’t need any particular set of credentials to do it – you can work as a writer, social entrepreneur, or advocate and accomplish a great deal for your cause in that way. If it’s about expressing an important part of your personality, you can find another outlet (in fact, you can probably find many outlets for it) in paid or unpaid work. If you want to make a six-figure income, you can – people find all sorts of ways to do this, and you can too if that is high on your priority list.

Suppose that you would really like to get married, but that hasn’t worked out either so far. This is a tough one, but the same idea applies. Make a list of all the reasons you wanted to get married. What was it going to do for you? Provide companionship and security? An extra income? Health insurance? Children? Permission to get a dog? Permission to settle down in one place? Permission to buy china or furniture or a piano and generally act as if you were going to stick around for a bit? Get your parents to approve of your relationship? Getting God to approve of your relationship? Write down all the jobs that marriage was supposed to accomplish. It’s going to be a long list. Once you’ve got it, think, and think hard. There is going to be a way to accomplish virtually every job on that list without getting married, so take a deep breath and work through it.

Single people are allowed to have friends, lovers, dogs, and china, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. When it comes to getting your parents’ approval, there aren’t any guarantees, but my guess is that a wedding ring won’t change a pattern of withholding approval. If you are a good person who treats people with respect and compassion and does useful and interesting things with your time, your parents’ decision not to approve of who you are or  how you love is their issue, not yours. If you’re worried about what God thinks, I would say that a being that is supposed to know everything ought to know that there are different people with different needs, desires, talents, and circumstances on this planet. I don’t think that such a being would expect us all to do the same thing. There is more than one way to please your God, and if there isn’t, then maybe God needs to shape up.

*Many thanks to Laurie for the phrase “I regularly exercise my substitution muscle.”

5 Responses to I Regularly Exercise My Substitution Muscle

  1. Maybe it’s just the lighting in here, but this post almost made me teary. I think this is such an important topic. So many of us feel trapped by our goals because we don’t know how to see around them and inside them and over them. I think many more posts could be written on this topic– perhaps even a whole separate blog!

  2. kek says:

    Oh, Carolyn, I wish you were in Madison. This is such a true message, one people in their 20s don’t hear enough. I know so many people who feel pigeon-holed into the paths they’re on and can’t see the validity of other routes. Goals are important, but especially when you’re starting out, changing your mind seems so daunting, and it shouldn’t.

    And as to marriage, the more you’re able to allow yourself to do those things you said you’d only do once married (the dog, the house, the couch, the fancy pots and pans), the more you’re able to see a relationship for a relationship, not its accoutrements. If/when I get married my registry is going to consist of donations. Lord knows I’ve already got the toaster, the cats, the furniture…

  3. kek says:

    Oh, but I should add that I will not get goats until partnered. Wedding donations of goat friends will, however, be accepted.

  4. Beth Buelow says:

    Carolyn, you have shared an extremely important message here! Thank you! By encouraging people to take a deeper look at their motivation for their goals, you are helping them tap into many more potential paths. Here’s something to add to what you’ve so directly and eloquently stated, as shared with me by another coach: think of “job” as “j-o-b, joy-of-being” If you substitute “joy of being” for each time you write “job” it means that someone is really trying to get to the heart of brings them joy. And that is the key to BEING in your life instead of simply doing, doing, doing! Way to go, Carolyn!

  5. localizing says:

    Thanks, everyone!

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